PARIS: With just over a year to go until the World Cup, some of Europe’s leading nations are hoping to take a major step towards sealing their places in the finals in Brazil in a busy week of qualifying.
The outstanding game of this month is the clash between France and reigning European and world champions Spain in Paris next Tuesday, with both sides tied on seven points at the top of Group I.
But both countries must first see off unfancied opposition on Friday evening, as Spain entertain Finland in the northern city of Gijon while France host Georgia.
Vicente del Bosque’s Spain side must do without captain Iker Casillas and Barcelona skipper Carles Puyol as both recover from injury, and Xavi Hernandez is also struggling for fitness.
Nevertheless, they should still see off the challenge of a Finnish side that currently props up Group I.
“We are all aware that both matches against Finland and France will be finals for us,” said Chelsea and Spain winger Juan Mata.
“It would be an error for us to think about France because we have to win the first match.”
His thoughts echoed those of France coach Didier Deschamps, whose side play their first competitive match since a creditable 1-1 draw in Madrid in October.
“In our qualifying campaign, for the match against Spain to mean anything, we need first of all to win against Georgia,” he said last week, trying to focus his team’s attention on the task in hand.
Elsewhere, Germany will be hoping to maintain their formidable record in qualifying when they make the long trip to Kazakhstan in Group C.
Joachim Loew’s side play the former Soviet republic twice in the next week, with the match in Astana being followed by another meeting in Nuremberg on Tuesday.
Germany are expected to win both games, and the group, comfortably but will be taking nothing for granted after drawing 4-4 with Sweden in their last qualifier in October.
Their two principal challengers in the section meet each other on Friday, with second-placed Sweden hosting the Republic of Ireland at the Friends Arena, where Zlatan Ibrahimovic memorably scored all four goals as the Swedes beat England 4-2 in a friendly last November.
Roy Hodgson’s England have little to win, and everything to lose, when they take on whipping boys San Marino on Friday before a much trickier assignment in Montenegro next midweek.
The trip conjures memories of the meeting between the teams in 1993, when San Marino took the lead inside nine seconds before eventually losing 7-1 to Graham Taylor’s England.
Just scoring a goal would be cause for celebration for the tiny principality that has never won a competitive match.
“I just checked up on them to see if San Marino have scored a goal recently but they haven’t,” said England goalkeeper Joe Hart. “Someone is going to concede against them and hopefully, if I’m playing, it won’t be me.”
That game is one of three in Group H, with the others seeing Montenegro — two points clear of England at the top — go to Moldova and Poland take on Ukraine.
Fabio Capello’s Russia will look to make it five wins from five games when they take on Northern Ireland in Belfast in Group F, and the Netherlands will be aiming to maintain their perfect record in Group D when they host Estonia.
But perhaps the most intriguing — and certainly the most explosive — fixture will be in Group A in Zagreb, where rivals Croatia and Serbia meet for the first time since the Balkan War of two decades ago.
“It is football and not war that awaits us in Zagreb,” said Serbia coach Sinisa Mihajlovic, but tensions will still run high in a clash that carries much wider significance to the people of both countries.
In purely footballing terms, the match is crucial in Group A, with Croatia second, six points ahead of the Serbs.
Belgium, who top the group on goal difference, go to Macedonia, while Scotland look to kickstart their campaign in their first competitive match under Gordon Strachan as Wales visit Hampden.